From refugees to magnates: how Partition survivors built business empires in newly independent India

16th Aug 2017
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People who fled their homes overnight with only the clothes on their back were moulded by the hardships they faced to achieve extraordinary success.

India - a culture that is thousands of years old but a nation that is only 70. She came of age post 1947, eager to make the most of her hard-won independence and grow to be at par with the most developed nations in the world. Her enthusiastic people, who had sacrificed much and fought hard to secure her independence, accepted this challenge with electric enthusiasm.

Goals and plans went into motion with one mission: development. Everything that used to be imported now began to be manufactured locally - from butter (Amul) to cosmetics (Lakmé) to cycles.

Decades later, we see the results. Industries that began life as startups are giants today. Lone visionaries pursuing impossible dreams are now inter-generational business families.

Not all entrepreneurs turned to their work with a source of pride; for some, it was a matter of survival. The glory of Independence will always be intertwined with the sorrow of Partition, regarded as the largest human displacement in history.

Those who were lucky enough to survive turned refugees overnight. There are stories about how wealthy landowners became pavement dwellers, how once-prosperous merchants did not have a rupee to their name. Each life story is an example of courage, grit and resilience.

We tell you about two tenacious entrepreneurs who decided to build a new future to escape the horrors of the past:

Dina Nath Kapur and Seva Ram Kapoor, Hitkari Pottery

“When people talk about the Partition, violence is sort of like a tangential thing that goes with it. But actually it also gave rise to incredible moments of sacrifice, friendship and courage,” says oral historian Aanchal Malhotra.

The beautiful friendship between Dina Nath Kapur and Seva Ram Kapoor exemplifies this. The two men survived Partition together and went on to set up a pioneering industry in India.

Dina Nath and Seva Ram were not new to entrepreneurship. They had started with a small cycle repairing shop in Jhelum and turned it into a prosperous establishment that imported bicycles from London. When they fled for their lives from the new Pakistan with no significant belongings lest they attract looters, Dina Nath carried in his pocket a single receipt regarding an awaited shipment of cycles.

The Kapoors and the Kapurs rented houses next to each other in Delhi. After battling tremendous international red tape and bureaucracy, they managed to have their final shipment of cycles brought to them in Delhi and started a modest business. Though the business did well in the beginning, it began to flounder in a newly open market saturated with competitors. Realising they would have to pivot to remain relevant, the friends began to look for other avenues.

They decided on ceramics once they realised that the aspirational population of newly-independent India identified bone china with good living. Their competitors were a couple of local brands in their twilight years. And Hitkari Pottery was born.

At the height of its popularity, Aanchal writes, it was “found in every middle-class china cabinet and bridal trousseau.”

As tastes modernised further, the company ruled the industry it had pioneered. In the 1970s, its annual turnover was

around Rs 6 crore, an amount it tripled in the 1980s to Rs 18 crore. It began exporting to Australia, Canada, US and even England, the country whose china they had stated emulating in the first place. It retained its popularity till 2000 with peak sales of around Rs 60-70 crore.

But with the passage of time, deaths and rising competition, the long-standing camaraderie between the families dissolved and Hitkari Pottery died a quiet death.

The cycle sellers-turned-refugees had spun for themselves a quintessential rags-to-riches story. But even after it shut down, Hitkari remained a sentimental entity among the generations that had loved and cherished it.

So much so that Future Group relaunched the brand in 2012. Santosh Desai, CEO of Future Brands, said in a newspaper report: “The Hitkari brand still has a lot of residual equity among consumers, so we found enormous value in the deal.”

Raunaq Singh, Apollo Tyres Ltd and Raunaq Group of Industries

Before Partition, Raunak Singh worked as a pipe salesman in Lahore and earned a comfortable living. But Partition changed all that. He and his family fled to India in penury and had to survive on as little as 1 paisa a day for their meals. He camped with 13 other refugees in a single room in Delhi’s Gole Market and found work at a spice shop to make ends meet. But this was not the life he could envision living.

It was an immense risk for refugees to carry valuables on their person while fleeing as it meant higher chances of getting looted and killed. But the family had managed to make it this side of the border with a small stash of jewels, a small sense of security to anchor their lives in a foreign land. Left with no other choice, Raunaq sold the jewellery for Rs 8,000 and set off to start his first business.

He set up a spice trading shop in Kolkata. His early days as an entrepreneur were full of struggle and resulted in many failures. But things turned around when the ever-resourceful Raunak capitalised on a chance encounter and took a severe pay cut to set up Bharat Steel Pipes. Life had come full circle for the erstwhile pipe salesman from Lahore who now headed a steel pipe business.

The rest is history. Having found success with Bharat Steel, Raunaq was raring to diversify his holdings and start as many ventures as he could. He founded Apollo Tyres as a small-scale company in Kerala in 1975. Today it is the world’s 15th largest tyre manufacturer with annual revenue of over hundred billions. The Raunaq Group of Industries deals in sectors as varied as InfoTech, pharmaceuticals, finance and automotive. It had a turnover of $525 million and 9,000 people on its payroll at the time of his death in 2002.

Raunaq Singh embodied the classic spirit of entrepreneurship that consumed India in the days following her independence. It is a spirit that continues to surround us today as India completes her 70th year and faces a new set of challenges. Then and now, we salute this spirit.


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